Editorial: To infinity and beyond…
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 125 No 8, 6 November 2020, page no. 4
Simon Sinek’s latest book is called “The Infinite Game”. Finite games, he says, are short-term, have a start and a finish, teams of players, a winner… and a history of organisation failure. Infinite games are never-ending with changing players. The idea of education or the work of the Union as an infinite game resonates with me.
There are numerous short-term milestones in union work: each agreement made, each election fought, and each group of members recruited and organised. But it has no end while need continues. One generation after another of members and activists builds on the work of those who came before, but with no end yet in sight.
This will be my last editorial as General Secretary of the QTU before I retire on 20 January next year. I have played my part as best I could. Now it is time for others to continue in the continuing struggle for better work and pay for teachers and principals, and for the best possible education for students in state schools, irrespective of their circumstances.
With one last editorial to go, I thought I would write about the future and its challenges rather than the past.
To me, the biggest challenge facing teachers, principals and the Union, from which the others flow, is the status of the teaching profession and the recognition of teachers as professionals. Associated with this is idea of professional autonomy that the QTU is again re-asserting.
According to the surveys, teachers are respected for their integrity – far more so than politicians (and union officials!).
It is the expertise of teachers that is grossly underrated, disregarded and worse, denigrated. This is at the heart of lack of respect for the teaching profession, because professions before all else are about expertise in a discrete body of knowledge and its application.
Gaslighting the profession
Public respect for teachers and teaching seems in short supply. Teachers bear the brunt of tired old insults about school holidays and only working nine to three. Teachers and principals are gaslit by media, politicians, bureaucrats and consultants constantly bemoaning allegedly falling standards, and the failure to win international competitions like PISA. Somehow, it is all teachers’ fault.
Schools are apparently responsible for all society’s ills, and the solution to every social problem is to add to the demands on schools. The social demands placed on schools, some reasonable and some not, divert resources from the business of education, whether narrowly or broadly defined.
The teaching profession is becoming so intimidated in the face of these regular barrages that it feels constrained from asking for anything – even a little respite – for themselves. They can only ask for funding or resources if it is for the kids. Yes, teaching conditions are learning conditions; but there is nothing wrong with asking for better teaching conditions for no other reason than teachers need and deserve better teaching conditions. It is like the profession has a giant inferiority complex!
At its maladjusted extreme, a sacrificial view of teaching is produced, in which the interests of teachers and principals are totally subjugated to the needs of the student.
Teachers work without the means to achieve the objectives set by politicians, bureaucracies and media.
The first Gonski report in 2011 came up with the notion of the schooling resource standard (SRS) – the resources necessary to achieve the goals of schooling set in the then Melbourne Declaration endorsed by all the governments of Australia. In 2020, funding for education in state schools in Queensland is only 89 per cent of the SRS. That is very likely an over-estimate since it includes some creative accounting about depreciation and the like.
As a nation, Australia’s spending on school education is about average by OECD standards, yet politicians want the best results in the world.
Rationally, in this situation, resourcing must be increased or the goals reduced. Reason, unlike blame, is in short supply however.
Lack of consultation
Control of the work has increasingly been removed from teachers and principals. Some “futurists” try to sell an education system of scripted, standardised education (for an exorbitant fee, of course) without teacher “interference”.
More prosaically, policy decisions about education in Australia are increasingly being made remote from practicing teachers and principals – by the Education Council, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), the the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) for example – as national funding agreements are used to impose change. For some proposed change, there is a veneer of consultation, but it is with very limited numbers, has little representative value and participants report that the outcomes are pre-determined.
More than anything else, the failure to consult demonstrates the lack of respect for the profession, its expertise and commitment. The decision-makers believe they know better than those who do the work every day. The role of teachers and principals is to follow orders, however absurd, however harmful.
Out of these conditions come many of the issues the QTU is currently addressing.
Excessive workload is a manifestation of unrealistic demands, under-resourcing, shifting the blame to teachers and principals who, for whatever reason, internalise the responsibility.
NAPLAN has little to do with identifying student need or disadvantage but much more with league tables, comparisons and vilification of schools and controlling the work of teachers and principals.
Job insecurity, number two in the issues of concern to QTU members, is justified by concerns about teacher quality but is actually about control and conditioning teachers and principals to conformity and obedience.
Occupational violence is under-reported and unaddressed because the needs of students are more important than the safety of teachers.
Another view of teaching
That is a bleak assessment. But I remain optimistic. The reality of teaching and of school leadership, including the experience of parents and others close to it, generates respect in spite of the gaslighting.
Teaching is a difficult and complex work that can be infinitely extended in its scope and infinitely dissected in its analysis. Its complexity is exacerbated, unlike other professions, by working with 25 clients, of varying abilities, at one time for five hours per day. Teaching students to read, to calculate, to understand their history and society, to appreciate art and music and more opens up opportunities for students beyond what family can do and circumstances allow.
Queensland (and Australia) has a teaching profession that is or should be the envy of most of the rest of the world. Teachers are all degree qualified and registered with commitments to continuing professional development. Those standards have been advanced and maintained by the profession through the QTU and IEU.
After the experience of remote learning this year, I think parents were generally happy, relieved and confident about students returning to school and their teachers with a new appreciation of the work teachers do.
The profession in charge
“The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”
The external influences on the teaching profession will not magically disappear. They will continue for as long as they are allowed, until they are effectively opposed.
A first step is to have PRIDE IN OUR PROFESSION. The negativity of those who do not know the job, or worse, those who have a vested interest in diminishing teachers and principals, is wearing.
We have to project that pride to the community.
Another step will be to insist on NO CHANGE WITHOUT AGREEMENT.
I’ve always liked the line before the American War of Independence about “no taxation without representation”.
Remote decision-making by people who don’t have to implement the decisions they make is unacceptable. In the absence of proper consultation with the teachers and principals who will have to implement change, a consensus about the value of the change and the resources to implement it, the answer is “NO!”
The third step is to build the UNION AS THE PROFESSIONAL VOICE.
United we bargain, divided we beg. The QTU has always regarded itself as the professional as well as the industrial voice of teachers, because there is no magical demarcation between the two spheres. The Union is the natural vehicle through which to pursue proper recognition of the teaching profession.
But we can do it better. How do we better collect the views of members on professional issues and develop consensus around policy positions to represent in state and national forums?
Fourth, we need to re-establish notions of PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY AND JUDGEMENT.
How much of the work that teachers and principals now undertake is to justify to others judgements that they are trained to make?
I remember being told when ROSBA was introduced that we would have to justify our assessment judgements in legal action, and the number of pieces of assessment set and corrected exploded at the expense of teaching time. What was billed as “continuous assessment” became continual assessment for a very limited, by no means proportionate improvement in accuracy, precision and validity. It is worse now.
It has been a privilege to spend the bulk of my working life working for and representing Queensland teachers and principals, including QTU members in TAFE and CQU. I thank you for the support that you have given me and the confidence that you have placed in me. I have done the best I could to repay that trust.
I became a teacher because of my belief in the transformative power of education. I became a QTU member partly from pre-disposition to working collectively and partly for the difference it could make to working lives and students’ education. I sought to become a Union Officer to do that on a broader scale for what is now 48.000 members. I am retiring from work but not from those beliefs.
I will see you at the barricades whenever I am needed.